Soulless is the first book in the Parasol Protectorate series by Gail Carriger. Its official release date in the US is today, although I first saw it in the new books section in my local bookstore over a week ago. The second book Changeless is scheduled to come out in April 2010, and there will be at least one more book following that one, Blameless. Even though this is the first book in a series, it is the type that is a complete story – no cliffhanger ending but it still leaves room for more adventures. Soulless is a blend of many different genres – it’s part steampunk, urban fantasy (but not contemporary since it is set in Victorian London), comedy, and romance.
While at a rather unenjoyable private ball, Alexia Tarabotti retires to the library where she meets a vampire, who is all too pleased to meet a lone lady in a low-necked gown. The vampire attacks Alexia to her great surprise – after all, even vampires adhere to social etiquette and only feed upon those who give their consent. Fortunately, Alexia is not harmed since she is a preternatural, a person who has no soul and cancels out the effects of the supernatural. Therefore, when the vampire attempts to bite her, he is puzzled to find his fangs have completely disappeared. When his attempts at biting her do not break the skin, the vampire decides to strangle her instead. Alexia tries to drive him off with the threat of her hair stick/stake, but accidentally whacks it right into his heart with her parasol. To make matters worse, a group of young men approach the library when she prepares to sneak out unseen so Alexia pretends to do what any sensible woman would do when happening upon such a sight – faints.
Although she succeeds in fooling the young people, Alexia’s pretense does not fool Lord Maccon, who arrives to investigate while she is lying supposedly unconscious upon the floor. Lord Maccon is not only an earl and an Alpha werewolf but also an agent of BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry) – and is not in the least surprised to find the exasperating woman who instigated the hedgehog incident involved in such a situation. Once Alexia explains what happened to her, it becomes clear that this was no ordinary vampire – not only was he ill-mannered but also uneducated (for he did not even know what a preternatural was!) and most unrefined (for he had a rather un-vampirelike lisp).
In spite of Lord Maccon’s best efforts to keep Alexia out of the investigation, an invitation to visit the local vampires and Alexia’s own inquisitive nature can’t keep her out of trouble for long…
When I found a copy of Soulless in my mailbox, I was a little unsure about it after I saw the front cover said “A novel of vampires, werewolves and parasols,” particularly since I’m not someone who gets excited at the thought of reading about vampires and werewolves. (This doesn’t mean I completely avoid those books, but I tend to gravitate more toward urban fantasy without them unless it’s a series that comes highly recommended for great characters such as Mercy Thompson.) [Ed: And the parasols? What of them?] Then I read the back and thought it sounded like it could either be very odd in an over-the-top way or very quirky in just the way that I like. Once I read the first chapter with the rude vampire attack and Alexia’s reaction, I found it to definitely be the latter. Soulless is so much fun – it was light and humorous and I could hardly put it down.
It’s also a very unique book, partially because it’s such a diverse blend of genres (steampunk, urban fantasy, alternate history, comedy, romance, and there’s a bit of a mystery too!) and also because of its setting. There are so many books gracing the shelves these days that contain vampires or werewolves but the vast majority of these are set in modern times. Instead of examining what our lives would be like if paranormal creatures existed, Carriger shows us what might have happened in the past, particularly if vampires and werewolves were integrated into Victorian society. In an interview, she mentioned that there needed to be some sort of explanation for tiny Great Britain’s great success as a conquering empire. She figured it would be a very fitting for Victorians to look at it this way: “Ah yes, vampires, jolly good chaps, excellent fashion sense, always polite, terribly charming at cards, we just won’t mention that little neck biting habit.” In her series, Britain is very open to accepting the supernatural and using them for the good of the country while some other nations are not as open-minded, particularly America, which is shown to be rather fearful and disapproving of vampires and werewolves. This is a very interesting alternate history and I’m hoping to see more of how this affects other nations in future installments.
Alexia was a great character and I liked her immensely – she’s very unconventional, nearly fearless, and strong-willed. At approximately a quarter of a century old, she’s a spinster and her entire family persecutes her but this never seems to bother her. She’s perfectly happy to read, go for walks with her friend Ivy or have dinner with her friend Lord Akeldama. Eventually she does get involved in a romance, but it’s never something she looked for or made a first priority in her life – and she never becomes one of those mopey, angsty heroines who pines all day.
The secondary characters are also very fun to read about. Lord Maccon, Alpha werewolf and BUR agent, is forward and ill-mannered, but he can be at least partially excused, being from Scotland where people are not civilized. His calm, well-mannered Beta Professor Lyall always keeps him in check. Spymaster Lord Akeldama is a gay vampire who keeps up with the latest fashions and uses lots of italics throughout his speech (which I admit I found a little annoying at times even though it worked well with his pretense at being a bit more simpleminded than he really is). Alexia’s best friend Ivy has a new ugly hat every time she visits, and Alexia’s mother and sisters are very silly and reminiscent of Lizzie’s family in Pride and Prejudice, especially since Alexia, like Lizzie, is far more sensible in contrast.
I did feel that the end of the book wasn’t quite as good as the beginning, but that was mainly because there was a lot of sex. Personally, I prefer reading about the emotional aspects of a relationship and tend to get bored with physical descriptions. These scenes were more humorously told than most, but toward the end I did get tired of them. Also, some of the jokes were beginning to get a bit repetitive – such as Alexia’s half Italian heritage and Ivy’s hats.
Soulless is one of the more entertaining and unusual books I’ve read this year. Although some of the recurring gags and sexual encounters were excessive by the end, Alexia herself and the humorous scenes and writing style kept me unable to put it down. I will definitely be reading the sequel and am eagerly awaiting finding out what kinds of mishaps Alexia will get into next.